Masked gunmen in the turbulent Iraqi city of Mosul ambushed a car carrying Turkish police officers today, shooting three to death and decapitating a fourth who tried to run away, witnesses said.
In a daytime attack reminiscent of the killing in March of four American security contractors in the city of Fallouja, militants looted the policemen's weapons and set the car ablaze before escaping.
After the attack, residents stood around the burning white Chevrolet Caprice as the bodies lay face down in the street.
For the past six weeks, Mosul, Iraqi's third-largest city, has exploded in violence and bloodshed, transforming from a relatively quiet region into a battleground between U.S. forces and insurgents.
Since early November, militants have attacked police stations, detonated car bombs and assassinated dozens of local security personnel and civilians. Over the past week alone, eight bodies were discovered in the area. Several were shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs. Their bodies were dumped by the side of the road.
Today's attackers also wounded two passengers who were believed to be riding in a second car that escaped, officials and witnesses said.
One of the occupants of the first car appeared to have been Iraqi. A witness on the scene, Qoteiba Mohammed, told Agence France-Presse that the driver of the car pleaded for his life before being shot.
"I'm an Iraqi, from Baghdad, don't shoot!" Mohammed said he heard the man scream.
The Turkish police officers had been providing security for the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad and were likely returning home, a U.S. official said. Turkish Embassy officials could not be reached for comment today.
The ambush, the latest in a string of attacks that have killed nearly 70 Turkish truck drivers and contractors in Iraq this year, came as Turkey was celebrating a long-awaited agreement to discuss future admission into the European Union.
Mosul emerged as a hot zone after U.S. troops invaded Fallouja last month.
Intelligence officials say many insurgents and foreign terrorists operating in Iraq shifted from the besieged Fallouja and the surrounding Al Anbar province to Mosul, which is located about 225 miles north of the capital.
The Mosul region "is right at the tipping point," said another U.S. official who requested anonymity. "It's a very bad situation. It's teetering back and forth, on the edge of being a second Anbar, a full scale war."
But U.S. military officials today reiterated past statements that the invasion of Fallouja had sapped the strength of the insurgency, even though some pockets of resistance remain. American troops last month stepped up their offensive operations in Mosul to prevent militants from taking control of the city.
"Nobody said that once we finished with Fallouja that it would all be over," said Lt. Col. Steve Boylon, a military spokesmen. "The insurgency is still the hardest battle to fight, especially in an urban environment."
Separately today, insurgents battled Iraqi security forces in Kirkuk, where ethnic tensions between Kurdish and Arab residents have been long simmering. Militants clashed with Iraqi National Guard in the city center today during a brief gun battle.
One bystander, a female teacher, was killed in the crossfire, said Maj. Gen. Anwar Hamid Amin, commander of the guard in Kirkuk.
Times staff writer Alissa Rubin in Baghdad and special correspondent Roaa Ahmed in Mosul contributed to this report.